Changing battlefields – Military lessons from the Ukraine conflict for India | 8 July 2023 | UPSC Daily Editorial Analysis

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What's the article about?

  • It talks about lessons that can be learnt from the Ukraine conflict for India.


  • GS2: Effect of Policies and Politics of Developed and Developing Countries on India’s interests, Indian Diaspora;
  • Essay

Analysis: No two wars are alike. Studying the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict may, however, offer some insights as to its changing nature, the impact of new technologies and new dimensions of strategy.  Following military lessons can be learnt from the Russia-Ukraine conflict:

  • Unstable deterrence upended by big-power geopolitical conflict is inherently escalatory.
    • How well Russia fares on the battlefield remains key to the fate of Ukraine as an independent state and the future of NATO.
  • Prolonged wars are more than stalemated wars due to their escalating aims.
  • Prolonged wars require a steady hand on the battlefield and a stable domestic front.
    • Following the dramatic Prigozhin rebellion, Russia was shaken but stabilised. It is Europe’s political economy, long used to cheap Russian energy, ample Chinese markets, and inexpensive US security, where uncertainties abound, most visibly in France.
  • Battlefield and political resilience are two sides of the same coin.
    • Strategic patience on the part of the political leadership and strategic coherence of the military go hand in hand.
  • Prolonged wars are wars of reserves — of political will, military capacity and reserves, civilian-industry fusion, industrial logistics, fresh and rotated manpower and role of paramilitaries.
    • Maintaining message consistency is critical to maintaining morale. Russia has gradually gained the upper hand, despite massive Western media support for Ukraine.
  • Wars are not linear but overlapping in lineage.
    • The Ukraine conflict is a 21st century war intersecting with 20th century use of artillery and dug-in defence.
    • However, in other respects, in the clash of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, what in essence is a direct clash between Russia and NATO systems, the conflict is a harbinger of things to come. Here too, Russia learnt and adapted.
  • The ugly child of the ISR revolution is the naked battlefield, disrobed of effective camouflage for deployed forces, or even attacking forces, due to the relentless stare of visual, infrared, and electronic sensors carried by drones, aircraft, and space assets.
    • Increased use of AI and quantum computing would compress combat engagement windows from hours to minutes.
    • Escalation within the domain or jumping across domains — cyber, space or the electromagnetic spectrum or even the threat of eco-warfare — would offer new margins of strategic surprise.
    • Drone saturated battlefields will be the future norm.
    • Critical technologies may have reverse flows — from the high-tech civilian sector to the mass-use military domain, sometimes blurring the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.
  • The democratisation of combat information will generate pressures for decentralisation of firepower, even as low as the platoon level.
    • Erosion of stealth will force dispersal of forces, both on land and at sea.
    • Engagements would be multiple and simultaneous rather than sequential.
    • Maintaining control over widely dispersed forces will require integration of command of an entirely new order.
  • The appeal of technology is universal, but its application is doctrine specific.
    • By adapting technology to its doctrinal needs, Russia secured battlefield gains, while Ukraine has been caught midstream between its own doctrine and that imported from NATO.
    • The trend towards networked battlefields is the way of the future.
    • Accepting one-size-fits-all — which is what the intended interoperability of Indian forces with those of the US will perhaps entail in practice — would create its own pitfalls, including constraining our operational flexibility in the name of doctrinal uniformity, which is the real conceptual underpinning of interoperability.

Way Forward:

  • India’s quiet military revolution, in terms of changes to higher defence management, procurement, and recruitment as well as on operational principles of jointness, integration and theaterisation, will greatly benefit our armed forces.
  • We would do well to learn, unlearn and relearn not only the lessons of past wars, but more importantly, study current global trends for lessons relevant for our future challenges.
  • Independence in thought and action in matters of war and peace is, after all, the true meaning of strategic autonomy and for our defence reform process, its true litmus test.

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